The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration
of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)
The image of Indians in New England was shaped both by traditions brought with settlers from Europe and by their experiences with Indians in the New World; however, their (predominantly negative) preconceptions colored almost all interactions. In the European tradition, Indians were either "barbaric and uncvilized heathens" or "noble savages," although the former definition usually won out over the latter. Some Puritans tried to spread Christianity to New England's Indians, but most tribes were distrustful of the settlers because they as often spread disease and dissension among tribes as they spread Christianity. For the settlers' part, nothing reinforced their negative associations with Indians like the tradition of captivity narratives which emerged in early American letters.
In 1675, the Wampanoag Chief Metacomet (known as King Philip by the English) expressed his resentment toward the settlers for encroaching on his tribal lands and treating his people disdainfully. The resulting war, known as "King Philip's War", which broke out resulted in a rash of raids throughout New England. In one of these battles, at Lancaster, Massachusetts, the Wampanoag and their Narraganset allies took several settlers captive and held them for ransom; among these captives was Mary White Rowlandson, the wife of a Congregationalist minister, and her three children.
Rowlandson remained a prisoner of the Narraganset for several months, during which time she and her two surviving children were forced to live and work as members of the tribe. The Rowlandsons were eventually ransomed and freed before the end of the war, and returned to
her husband, who had now relocated to Wethersfield, Connecticut.
In part ot make sense of her experience and in part, as she put it, "for the Benefit of the Afflicted," Rowlandson made a record of her captivity which was published after her death. The narrative had the unwieldy original title of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Commended by Her, to All That Desires to Know the Lord's Doings to, and Dealings With Her, Especially to Her Dear Children and Relations. The Second Addition Corrected and Amended. Written by Her Own Hand for Her Private Use, and Now Made Public at the Earnest Desire of Some Friends, and for the Benefit of the Afflicted but came to be known as "The Narrative of Mary Rowlandson." The narrative went through countless editions and was one of the most popular books in the eighteenth century; it also spawned a literary tradition of captivity narratives which stretched forward in history even to the contemporary period.
- Questions to Consider:
- 1) What are the key events which take place in Rowlandson's Narrative? What does her emphasis on these events reveal about her world-view?
- 2) How did Rowlandson see the world before her captivity experience? In what ways does Rowlandson's narrative reinforce this pre-captivity outlook?
- 3) Pay close attention to Rowlandson's descriptions of Indians, both men and women. How does she view Indians in general, and how does she differentiate between Indian men and women? To what might you attribute this differentiation? How does Rowlandson view the relations and power balances between the sexes among Native American men and women? What do her dehumanizing descriptions of Indians and of Narragansett culture accomplish in the Narrative, and in history's reading of her Narrative?
- 4) At several places in the Narrative, Rowlandson refers to "praying Indians," Indians who had been converted by Christian missionaries. What is Rowlandson's attitude towards these "praying Indians"? Why might she feel that way towards them? What do her attitudes reveal about the future of Indians in New England?
- 5) Did Rowlandson's outlook or opinions change at all during her eleven-week captivity? Why or why not? Did her attitudes towards her captors change over time? If so, what makes you think so? If not, speculate about the reasons why it doesn't (or couldn't).
- 6) Based on her narrative, for whom do you think Rowlandson's wrote her narrative? How do you think her audience viewed her? What evidence leads you to this conclusion?
- 7) To what would you attribute the Narrative's tremendous popularity among white readers, even among those who were not Puritans? In what way does it reinforce the dominant European view of Indians as dangerous savages?
- 8) Compare Rowlandson's Narrative to other narratives you have read, such as
Frederick Douglas's slave narrative. Do they appeal to equivalent audiences? Do they seek to achieve similar goals? What elements and conventions do they share? How do they differ? To what do you attribute these differences and similaraties?
- 9) Giles Gunn, in New World Metaphysics: The Religious Meaning of the American
Experience (Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 71) , has argued that Rowlandson's narrative suggests, "perhaps unintentionally, what the `Americanization' of the Christian, or submission to what she calls `this Wilderness-condition' could conceivably cost. It helped establish in the minds of many the harrowing confrontation of the civilized with the primitive as the archetypal pattern of that process of acculturation." Does this statement apply to Rowlandson's narrative? In what ways is her story about what Turner has termed the "frontier"--that meeting point between savagery and civilization--experience?
- 10) Imagine Rowlandson's Narrative as written by one of her captors rather than herself. What events would be important in this alternate version? What would be the alternate version's story?
- Further Readings:
- Donna Campbell's excellent Bibliography on Rowlandson and Captivity Narratives.
- Mary D. Been's "Black and Red But White All Over: Race in the Indian Captivity Narratives of Early African Americans" (GEMCS Conference, San Antonio, Texas, 1995).
- James K. Folsom's "Precursors of the Western Novel" from Literary History of the American West (an excellent essay by Professor Lavender's former professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder).
- Maribeth Miguel's "How the War Began."
- Caroline Gleason's "The Chosen People of God: Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative."
- Ed Klekowski and Libby Klekowski of the Biology Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst provide images of the landscape in which Rowlandson found herself captive.
- Rebecca Blevins Faery, "Legacy Profile: Mary Rowlandson, 637-1711," in Legacy Vol. 12, No. 2 (1995): 121-132.
- Richard Slotkin and James Folsom, So Dreadful a Judgment. (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1978).
- Richard Van Der Beets, Held Captive By the Indians: Selected Narratives 1642-1836 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973).
- Charles H. Lincoln, ed., Narratives of the Indian Wars, 1675-1699 (New York,
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (The American Experience--Social Sciences), The Honors College of The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York, Fall Semester 2000. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Saturday 19 August 2000.